Archive | outdoors RSS for this section

Wilderness redux

Sorry, have been here before but a new example of the wilderness myth just cropped up and it seems worth revisiting this chestnut.  In an op-ed in the New York Times, Doug Scott argues against bikes in Wilderness (unfortunately, he does not really distinguish capital-W Wilderness areas, which are a legal description, from lowercase w wilderness, which might extend to areas not so protected).  Anyways, GG agrees that bikes in Wilderness is a bad idea. But Scott then goes on to say just why we have Wilderness

We set aside wilderness areas to protect them for what they are — wild places, untrammeled, as much as possible, by man, a reminder of what this country was like before Columbus set foot on this side of the Atlantic.

Now this is carefully worded, but as we’ve noted before, by removing Native Americans and greatly changing the populations of wild animals, these Wilderness areas look quite different from what was here before Columbus. They might indeed be a “reminder,” but that reminder leaves something of a false impression. They are wild in the sense of being unmanaged, but not wild in the sense of a natural balance free of human impact.

Also, this was only one of the motivations for creating Wilderness areas.  Other motivations might actually encourage the use of bikes (such a possibility is discussed in some of those earlier posts linked above).

The bill in question is inspired in part by closure of popular mountain bike trails in a recently created Wilderness. It isn’t much a leap for mountain bike advocates to say, if we were using it and it was still in a pristine enough condition to become Wilderness, then why say that Wilderness must exclude bikes? The answer above is, basically, because Wilderness visitors require there be no bikes. Yet Wilderness does not prevent the use of boom boxes (GG can testify from a recent trip that such use along Wilderness trails is actually growing), smart phones, handheld radios, or GPS units, none of which embody the essence of Wilderness. Leaning too hard on the experience visitors get will get very sticky very fast.

Or, had Wilderness advocates allowed this Wilderness to permit bikes, why exclude them elsewhere? This is presumably why the bikes were excluded, the old camel’s nose under the tent flap argument taking hold.

This headache is the product of using Wilderness as a one-size-fits-all means of protecting a landscape. We desperately need a more nuanced approach that buffers sensitive lands rather than extending complete protection right to the edge of civilization. Originally things like National Forests (originally the Forest Reserves) were meant to serve such a purpose, but conservationists increasingly grew wary of allowing Forest administrators to decide the fate of pristine lands as they showed an appetite for getting the cut out and promoted the number of miles of new road they were creating. The result are very contentious land management decisions made at the highest levels. This might not always produce results really consistent with Scott’s vision of WIlderness.

Consider the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which includes several lakes dammed for hydroelectric power, dams with cable railways and lakes with big bathtub rings late in the summer.  (To be clear, the cable railway and associated maintenance buildings are indeed cherry-stemmed in). How much of a “reminder of what this country was like before Columbus set foot on this side of the Atlantic” is that? And this is “untrammeled, as much as possible”? Really? By jamming stuff like this inside Wilderness and running these boundaries right to the very edge of civilization, we have cheapened the concept of–in Scott’s view, the very justification for–Wilderness areas. In a very real way, Wilderness advocates have brought this down on themselves.

Much as we have seen National Parks and Monuments evolve in some instances to be administered by non-Park Service agencies and continue to allow activities not usually consistent with parks, it seems possible that we might see something like this happen to Wilderness areas. And you know, that would actually be too bad because, well, the camel’s nose argument, the slippery slope–those are plausible outcomes.

Llama learnings

The past week has had bits and pieces of things that arose from llama packing the Muir Trail. So a last few odds and ends before moving back to more typical fare.

  • If you llama pack, make a list of what is in each bag once you first get bags balanced. It speeds things up on later days.
  • Similarly, stuff sacks make that description (and packing) lots easier. We had a green stuff sack with cooking gear, a blue one with towels and shower, a yellow one with power-related stuff, etc.
  • If your llama packs have small end pouches, use them both to easily shift things to get packs in balance but also for things you might want to grab. We had water bottles, first aid kit, and sandles in ours.
  • It seems there are two strategies for keeping llamas from getting poisoned: keep them away from complexes of plants, and let them roam. The first is what we did; the second is only open to private groups with their own llamas and the willingness to chase them down.
  • Probably a bad idea to leave llamas picketed in the same place for several hours unless you are confident there is nothing bad for them to eat.
  • Sure would be nice to have a llama-friendly list of grazing sites. Not enough llama-travel to justify one.
  • Look beyond the first obvious campsite. There is almost always a better one.
  • Take at least one outrageous luxury llama packing. People will be baffled why you use llamas without one.
  • Ovaeasy egg crystals really are good enough to leave eggs at home. Hunt them down.
  • You can never take enough chocolate.
  • Nice big llama-bag-sized bear boxes are tons easier to pack than those black cylindrical her cans. But the black cylinders are great for getting tortillas to last a long time.
  • Dress well if leading llamas-you will be in lots of vacation photos and so might want to look your best.
  • Don’t use water from a lake without an outlet unless your filter can be back flushed.
  • Always check in with a ranger. You never know what good karma might emerge.
  • Gravity feed water filters rock. They last longer if you are careful with what you put in.
  • Don’t crap in campsites. Please. You walked this far in wilderness, a few more steps won’t kill you. On a related note, learn just how deep 6 inches really is.
  • Plan on taking out your used TP. This is getting to be a common rule more easily addressed with planning.
  • Llama jokes are harder to come up with than you would expect.
  • Llamas are not bothered by lightning and thunder. But they will startle if you stumble while close behind them.
  • Solar panels for backpacking work great for iPhones but we had less luck with camera batteries. Try before you hike.
  • Solar panels work well lashed atop llama packs.
  • Obscure convenience:  Muir Trail Ranch has AC power for hikers. Come prepared.
  • Crushed hope: the little store at Muir Trail Ranch has no snacks. It does have gloves, bug stuff and first aid materials.
  • Moleskin without benzoin is basically an invitation for a new blister where the moleskin piled up.
  • Molefoam is a cruel joke.
  • Somebody please make size 12 1/2 boots.
  • If you can, take a chair. If not, take a hammock.
  • Tripods make good gravity-feed filter props when above timberline.
  • Marvel at those on the trail at sunrise or sunset. Did they really come to work that hard?
  • Have at least one mildly absurd food in your resupply. (Ours was Pringles).
  • Plan ahead. You don’t want to make the journey too long when passing through areas where grazing isn’t allowed.

Finally, some lousy llama jokes:

  • What is a religious llama’s favorite off-Broadway play?  Hello Dalai Llama.
  • Where do expectant llama mothers go?  Llama mamas class (Or llama-Lamaze)
  • What does a startled llama see in the mirror? His spitting image.
  • What is a llama’s favorite drink on a hot day?  Llamonade. (No it does not make sense).

Disrepair…or misunderstood?

Nicholas Kristof apparently was on the John Muir Trail with his daughter about the same time GG was on the trail with his daughter (but GG had 3 llamas, while poor Nicholas had to make do with a backpack).  How did we miss each other?  Anyways, he wrote a bit about how we all own national parks but then included this damning note:

Even on the John Muir Trail, large stretches are in disrepair and had turned into creeks of snowmelt when my daughter and I hiked them. This quickly erodes the trails so much that new ones have to be built nearby. This reluctance to pay for maintenance isn’t even fiscally prudent, for it’s far more expensive to build new trails than to maintain old ones.

Now there are a lot of things that need repair or maintenance in national parks, but you know what?  It isn’t clear that the John Muir Trail is anywhere near the top of the list.

Read More…

Road gaps

Hiking the Muir Trail this summer got GG pondering what might have been, as is still evident in the California highway numbering system…

If you are in Denver and driving east on I-70 and want to be on I-70 in Washington DC, you can simply stay on I-70.  This is pretty much true throughout the interstate system: get on I-5 in San Diego and you can follow it all the way to Seattle.  But get on California 190 in Porterville and head east and you’ll need an atlas to somehow get on California 190 heading east from Olancha. Similarly, following highway 168 east out of Fresno will carry you past a small ski area and to the edge of the Huntington Lake Resort, but try to continue on to the Bristlecone Pine forest and you’ll quickly find yourself on what amounts to a paved horse trail heading to Florence Lake with no hope of getting across the range in your motor vehicle. Those oddly disconnected pieces of numbered highway are reminders of how the long Wilderness of the Sierra very nearly was not to be.

SierraRoads

Disconnected and incomplete trans-Sierra highways

These highway numbers are not an accident or a malicious joke by Caltrans.  These two highways were intended to be connected; two others were the Minarets Highways crossing the Sierra near Devils Postpile (a continuation of highway 203) and a continuation of highway 180 across Kearsarge Pass to Independence. As roads to the north were completed, continuing the march to the south seemed likely in the 1950s and plans were laid for expansion of the highway system.

Increased experience in mountain highways and a shift from a need for access to a need for preservation conspired to block this march of progress.  The cost of maintaining the existing trans-Sierra roads was proving to be significant, lessening Caltrans’s appetite for more expensive mountain roads only open a few months of the year; the need for residents of Fresno to visit Bishop was hardly compelling, the Forest Service established a Primitive Area across some road alignments, Congress legislated Wilderness areas in some other areas, and the most promising road (the Minarets Highway), which would have given Central Valley ski bums a quick link to Mammoth Mountain, was scotched by Governor Reagan and his Secretary of Resources, Ike Livermore, who apparently was scarred by finding automobiles at Reds Meadow as a youth working as a packer. [Reagan also killed the designation of the Mineral King road as a state highway].

This is generally good news though for Muir Trail hikers, though.  Had planned highways been completed, we would have crossed three major trans-Sierra highways instead of hiking for nearly 200 miles through wilderness. While this maybe has made getting a resupply harder than it might have been, it is difficult to imagine Highway 168 plowing down Evolution Valley or winding down Piute Creek towards the Muir Trail Ranch; the halfway point for the John Muir Trail might have been a highway rest area. Highway 180 would have replaced the busiest backcountry area in Kings Canyon National Park with gas fumes, car campgrounds and even more abuse. The fragmented wilderness would have been quite different.

In a way, it is possible that Los Angeles’s appropriation of the Owens River helped to keep the roads from being completed.  Had water stayed in the valley, it is nearly certain that populations would have been larger and more eager for major east-west highways.

Whatever the reasons, it is well to recall that one of the longest wilderness hikes in the country nearly became impossible.

Is Through-hiking Killing the Wilderness?

JMTpinecones

One observation from hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) with llamas was just how many people are on that trail (a separate observation was just how many of those backpackers are baby-boomers–seems like about a third if not more). Does this represent a big increase in Wilderness use, or is it misleading?

If you try and hike the Muir Trail, you quickly learn it is very popular.  Yosemite has a quota of 45 on permits leaving the park over Donahue Pass; this was instituted after the number of JMT hikers jumped from about 1000/year 14 years ago to 3500/year more recently. Similarly, the Forest Service has a quota of 25 people/day for exiting at Whitney Portal (there is also a quota for entering there).  The result of these has been to push hikers to other trailheads; the quota for entering at Cottonwood Pass, for instance, was met for most days in July this year. We met a lot of folks who started there.

jmtgraph_2

JMT trail use, from Yosemite National Park website.

Is this a blip on the radar?  Is it an increase in popularity?  It is hard to tell…

Read More…

Top 14 Llama-inspired utterances

LlamaEncounter

On the Muir Trail, you encounter a huge number of people (we’ll come back to that later) and it is the rare hiker who says nothing.  Here, in something like reverse order of occurrence, are the most common statements:

14. “Do they carry their feed?” [No, they carry my feed.]

13. “You sure have strange horses.” [And is that hump on your back permanent? It is really unflattering]

12. “Are you a resupply?” [No.  That is left for less charismatic animals like mules]

11. “How did you get them here?” [Helicopter, of course]

10. “Are they yours?” [Only for a few days, then we return them to the orphanage like in Despicable Me]

9. “Can I pet them?” [Not the way you mean.  Sometimes you can stroke their necks, but leave the heads alone]

8. “Where did you get them?” [GG’s friend’s response: ‘we found them wandering on the trail’]

7. “Do they spit?” [Only when confronted by that question.  Otherwise they only spit at other llamas, so don’t get between angry llamas]

6. “Why are you wearing a pack if they are carrying all that stuff?” [It’s just for show to prove we are hiking.  Actually, the pack is light but has grain in case llamas wander off, lunch, sunscreen, spare camera battery, water, more water, snacks, rain gear, knife, a UV water purifying pen–basically most of the stuff I might need on the trail.]

5. “How much can they carry?” [We aren’t sure; none have collapsed yet under the weight.  But we are told to limit things to 50-60 pounds generally]

4. “They’re so cute!” [Aww, how nice.  You missed them using the llama-loo just down the trail, so watch your step]

3. “Are they llamas or alpacas?” [We were told llamas, but if you can tell the difference, let us know if we’ve been misled.  After all, “alpaca” sounds like the start of “I’ll pack a bunch of stuff for you”]

2. “Can I take a picture?” [Could we stop you? No?  Then sure, take a picture. We could probably have paid for the trip by charging a $10 llama-photo fee]

And so the number one thing people say when they spot llamas on the trail:

1. “Llamas!” [No kidding.  We could hear the cry from hundreds of feet away.  The strangest was “Camels!”. Really?  Camels? Guys, you need to read more books with pictures]

Leading Llamas in the Sierra

OK, back from 22 days with GG’s daughter and llamas Joe, Sarek and Theo on the John Muir Trail.  So some thoughts on llama packing, in case anyone cares.

The big pro for llama packing vs horses: you don’t have to hire a wrangler.  The biggest negative: you are the wrangler. Frankly whether you ever decide to do this or not depends on how you feel about having animals to care for. If you can’t stand the thought of a 40 pound pack but love llamas and pine for the high country, this is for you.  If you can’t tell if your pack weighs 10 or 60 pounds when you bust up Kearsarge Pass and routinely kick stray dogs, probably you don’t want to do this.

A minimal day with rental llamas might start with you getting up, packing your gear, eating your breakfast and then putting your gear into pairs of bags that balance within a pound or so (GG recommends making a list of what is in each bag the first time you get this to work so you can start more quickly each morning).  You saddle the llamas and toss on and cinch down the bags, and off you go (after spreading out the llama poop so it degrades faster).  On the trail your worries are minimal, though you want to keep an eye out for horse parties or, if outside a national park, groups with dogs (horses and mules will spook at llamas–you get well off the trail; llamas will want to face dogs and so can get in a tangled mess if dogs are too close). You may be posing for photos a big part of the day. As your hiking day wanes, you seek out a site where llamas can graze, which can be mildly tricky.  You unload the llamas, remove saddles, put out a picket line and put the llamas on it, get some water for the llamas, do some camp things, and possibly move the llamas around some (depending on the grazing) before bringing them out of the grass for night. Nothing too complex, but you do need to do it.

The single most worrying part is whether or not you will poison the llamas.  We were given guidance to only graze the llamas where the plants were nearly all grass and you could see soil between the clumps of grass.  Nobody got sick, so that seemed to work.  But it can make it hard to know for sure where you will be OK, especially at first as you start to study grassy areas and realize they are all different in ways that may or may not matter.  GG suspects that it helps to not leave the llamas for a long time in one place, especially if they are hungry–they might eat their way down to unpleasant stuff.  Also, outside the parks you won’t find much info on where there is good grazing–coming to a lake you plan on camping at at 4 in the afternoon only to discover there is nothing is no fun.  (FWIW, we managed pretty nearly everywhere we wanted to camp). Inside the parks, there are grazing restrictions and meadow closures to navigate (the toughest on the Muir Trail is the big closures around Rae Lakes).

Realistically, if you put the welfare of the llamas first, you will do OK.  The few non-poisoning horror stories we encountered had to do with llamas that were not seasoned for trail work and/or users who were not attuned to working with the animals.

In the Sierra, you are either using your own llamas or renting from Potato Ranch Llama Packers; nobody else seems to rent llamas in the Sierra (different story in the Rockies, where there are several operators). Note that for serious trail use, llamas need to be trained and properly prepared, so your high school friend’s llama might not be a great fit.  Generally the llamas really like to be together, so having at least 2 probably makes for happier llamas and easier management for you.

P.S.  If you really have the stomach for the blow-by-blow of the whole trip, it is slowly coming online at http://cires1.colorado.edu/people/jones.craig/Llama/index.html.